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As the passive progressed

Q: I’ve recently noticed a construction in Emma that doesn’t occur in modern English. When Frank Churchill and Emma entered Ford’s, “the sleek, well-tied parcels of ‘Men’s Beavers’ and ‘York Tan’ were bringing down and displaying on the counter.” Is this a common usage from Jane Austen’s era?

A: You’ve stumbled across a very interesting old usage, from a time when houses were “building” instead of “being built,” portraits were “painting” instead of “being painted,” and boots were “mending” instead of “being mended.”

People used this now-archaic construction, which grammarians call the passival, because the passive progressive tense—“was being built,” “is being painted,” and so on—hadn’t yet come into English.

Although a few examples of the passive progressive were recorded in Jane Austen’s day, the usage was rare at the time.

Austen  wrote that the gloves “were bringing down and displaying” instead of “were being brought down and displayed” because the latter construction was probably unknown to her.

Emma was published in late 1815, when only one form of the verb “be” was commonly used as an auxiliary in standard English.

It wasn’t until later in the 19th century that people began regularly combining two forms of the verb “be” (as in “is being,” “was being,” “were being”) to form the passive progressive tense.

In searches of literary databases, we’ve found many illustrations of the older construction, which uses the active voice to describe what is passive in meaning.

Austen uses it in this Feb. 8, 1807, letter to her sister Cassandra: “Our garden is putting in order, by a Man who bears a remarkably good Character, has a very fine complexion & asks something less than the first.”

She also uses it in Northanger Abbey, which was written in the late 1700s, revised several times in the early 1800s, and published after Austen’s death in 1817:

“The bustle of going was not pleasant. The clock struck ten while the trunks were carrying down, and the general had fixed to be out of Milsom Street by that hour.”

We’ve found many other examples of the usage. In this one, hymns are “singing” instead of “being sung”:

“He saw the [them] al kneele down, and whilest each Gloria Patri, &c. was singing, they al fell prostrat on their faces.” (From An Admirable Method to Love, Serve, and Honour the B. Virgin Mary, written in Italian by Alexis de Salo and published in English in 1639.)

In this humbler example, a “house of office” (that is, a privy) is “emptying” instead of “being emptied”:

“So from thence home, where my house of office was emptying, and I find they will do it with much more cleanness than I expected.” (From a July 28, 1663, entry in Samuel Pepys’s Diary.)

In this passage, ships are “mending” instead of “being mended”:

“Here we found Ruy Freira with part of his Ships, of which some were mending.” (From The Travels of Sig. Pietro della Valle, a Noble Roman, Into East-India and Arabia Deserta, published in English in 1665.)

And here we find a bridge that’s “finishing” instead of “being finished”:

“For whilst the Bridge was finishing with incredible Expedition, some Soldiers for Spyes swam over to the other side.”  (From The History of the Turks, by Sir Paul Rycaut, 1700.)

In an account of a trial for seditious libel, the sentence is “reading” instead of “being read”:

“Whilst his sentence was reading he appeared sometimes to mutter against it.” (From The History of the Reformation and Other Ecclesiastical Transactions in and About the Low Countries, originally written in Low Dutch in 1703 and published in English in 1722.)

Finally, in a usage found often in 17th- and 18th-century writing, tea is “preparing” instead of “being prepared”:

“Tea was preparing. Sir Charles took his own seat next Lord L. whom he set into talk of Scotland.” (From Samuel Richardson’s novel Sir Charles Grandison, 1753.)

This use of “preparing” survived until well into the 19th century: “They were seated in the coolest seats on the piazza, and melons and other fruit brought while tea was preparing.” (From an unsigned story in the January 1836 issue of a New York monthly, the Ladies Companion.)

Jane Austen was among the last generation of writers to use the old verb form without the passive “being.” Later writers made greater use of “being” as they shifted to the new passive progressive tense (or “aspect,” a term many linguists prefer).

But the transition wasn’t a smooth one. As the OED notes, early 19th-century grammarians condemned the new usage.

Oxford cites criticism from David Booth’s An Analytical Dictionary of the English Language (1830): “For some time past, ‘the bridge is being built,’ ‘the tunnel is being excavated,’ and other expressions of a like kind, have pained the eye and stunned the ear.”

That passage does not appear in the original, 1805 edition of Booth’s book, so the new construction must have come to his attention sometime between then and 1830.

The linguist Mark Liberman, in a Jan. 11, 2013, post on the Language Log, notes that the new usage was still being criticized in the second half of the 19th century.

The literary critic Richard Grant White, for example, wrote in Words and Their Uses (1870) that the construction served “to affront the eye, torment the ear, and assault the common sense of the speaker of plain and idiomatic English.”

But there were good reasons why the passive progressive developed, as we’ll see.

Long before Austen’s time, in fact since the late 1300s, people had been combining the old preposition “a” with gerunds used passively to describe an action in progress.

Here’s an example from the King James Bible (1611): “In the dayes of Noah while the Arke was a preparing.”

Here, “preparing” is a gerund—essentially, a noun—rather than a present participle. The “a” preposition, the OED says, was used with a gerund in “expressing process,” and meant “in process of, in course of,” or “underdoing (some process)” such as making, building, mending, etc.

“On,” and “in” had been used the same way. So a theoretical 16th-century writer might say that court papers were “on preparing” or “in preparing” or “a preparing” and mean the same thing—the papers were in preparation.

By Austen’s time, the prepositions had mostly fallen away. But eventually these “-ing” usages led to ambiguity, since in identical constructions one “-ing” word was a participle and the other a gerund.

Someone might write, for example, that his lawyers “were preparing” papers (participle), but also that the papers themselves “were preparing” (gerund).

For an extreme example of the confusion this might cause, take a look at this OED citation from Henry More’s An Antidote Against Atheisme 1653): The shreeks of men while they are a murdering.”

The writer didn’t mean that the men shrieked as they murdered people. He meant that they shrieked as they were being murdered: “a murdering” here meant undergoing murder. But only the context would tell the reader which meaning was intended.

Obviously, English needed a new tense—one combining a form of “be” + “being” + past participle, as in “were being murdered.”

The OED’s earliest use for the new tense is dated 1772, in a letter written by the Earl of Malmesbury: “I have received the speech and address of the House of Lords; probably, that of the House of Commons was being debated when the post went out.”

Two later examples are cited from the 1790s, also from private letters. But it wasn’t until after Jane Austen’s time that the passive progressive became common.

Remnants of the old usages are still with us today. We still say “time’s a-wasting” for “time is being wasted.”

And we still say “nothing doing,” a leftover from the Middle Ages when people said that things were “doing” instead of “being done.”

As the OED says, the old passive construction “to be doing” meant “to be in the course of being done, to be happening.”

Here’s the old usage in action: “Little thought false Reyner what was doing at Canterbury, whiles hee was trotting to Rome.” (From The History of Great Britaine Under the Conquests of ye Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans, by John Speed, 1614.)

And here’s one with a very modern sound, quoted in the OED: “He always says there is nothing doing.” (From a letter written by the Earl of Manchester in 1700.)

Eventually, in the 19th century, the phrase became simply “nothing doing.” The OED gives this example:

“A friend of mine hailed an outfitter the other day, ‘How is business?’ ‘Nothing doing.’” (From a Liverpool weekly, the Porcupine, 1870.)

And in the first decade of the 20th century, the meaning changed. “Nothing doing” became “an announcement of refusal of a request or offer, failure in an attempt, etc.,” Oxford says.

The dictionary gives this example from the Dec. 13, 1910, issue of the New York Evening Post: “Spottford offered the porter a dime. The negro waved it aside and said: ‘Nothing doing; my price is a quarter at least.’ ”

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